Reconsidering the ‘risk society theory’ in the South

This paper draws on the theoretical framework of German sociologist Ulrich Beck’s ‘risk society theory’ of reflexiveness to assist in understanding civil society response to industrial risk in Durban, South Africa. The paper draws on qualitative research and presents viewpoints from key stakeholders at the city level and through a local case study. Following the case, an assessment of the ways in which the risk society concept is useful to examine the empirical results and how it needs to be reconsidered in the South African context is presented. Beck’s separation of reflexive spontaneous action and reflective strategic action for reflexiveness is assessed, including his notion that reflexive action, which is devoid of knowledge, precedes reflective action. Besides empirically highlighting that reflexive and reflection actions are tied together in a complex relationship, the paper shows that the degree of reflexiveness in the South is more complex than risk society suggests. There is a need for the applicability of risk society beyond the narrow confines of the First World to explore the geographies of reflexiveness.

Keywords: risk society, industrial risk, reflexivity, civil society, environmental justice, Durban

Leonard, L. (2014) Reconsidering the ‘risk society theory’ in the South: the case of civil society actions against a proposed industrial risk facility in Durban, South Africa, South African Review of Sociology,

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